Wednesday, January 30, 2008

God's Playing Field

To complain that my 9 year old son has a knack for finding inappropriate content on the internet is akin to grumbling that he is good at finding sand at the beach. Luckily, his interests so far have gravitated more towards YouTube videos of people farting on each other than, say, “adult-oriented websites of a certain nature.” Let’s hope he stays 9 for a long time, and continues to prefer the vulgar over the decadent.

His specialty is finding video games that meet the letter of the law at our house, without quite honoring its spirit. He was so good at finding free, uber-violent internet games that we had to institute a “no-blood” rule. He’s not allowed to play any game where blood is spilled. He feels this greatly limits his educational opportunities. We do not share his concerns at this time.

The other day I found him playing this game: God’s Playing Field.

It is a very simple game. You are God, and there are people and cars wandering around down on earth, minding their own business. Your job, as God, is to kill as many of them as quickly as possible. When you have killed a sufficient number, you are allowed to buy more potent weapons, which allow you to kill even more people more efficiently. God’s weapons apparently include:

A Big Fist (of God, presumably)
Pillar of Fire
Lightening Strikes
Tidal Wave
Atomic Bomb

As offensive as this game is, I doubt it was crafted from any deeply held theological beliefs. The purpose seems to be to find unique ways to kill lots of people, and the Old Testament God was simply a handy tool. It was probably created by a bunch of smart-alecky teenagers who thought it would be funny. Annoying as that is, I can tolerate it more than that video game created by some Left Behind crazies, where the object is to convert or kill the non-believers. It is harder for me to deal with people who willfully misunderstand their own religion than it is simple smart-alecks.

What annoys me most about God’s Playing Field is that they took so much time to think through the blasphemy of it, but didn’t bother to include blood as part of the carnage. That way, my son would not have been able to hide behind the “no-blood” rule. He may have still played it, but at least he would have had to face the proper wrath of his parents. Instead, he forced us to tighten up our house rules.

So, new rule at my house: No games where the purpose is to kill others or to show God as angry, vengeful, or violent. Only time will tell where he will find the loopholes in those rules.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Another Blasphemer

I was appalled to hear of another person sentenced to death for blasphemy – this time a journalist in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the lesson many people draw from cases like this is that Islam is Bad and Christianity is Good, and aren’t we lucky to live in a Christian nation. Given the history of Europe and Christianity, this is a strange lesson to be learned. After all, Christians spent a millennium chopping each others’ heads off for blasphemy as official state policy.

The lesson we should draw is that we should be glad to live in a country that respects separation of Church and State. It wasn’t until Europeans and their descendents decided to sever the ties between state power and religious edict that liberal democracies were able to blossom, allowing for all that free speech, human rights, and self-determination that we say we like so much.

Unfortunately, a lot of people spend a lot of time and energy in attempts to undermine the separation of church and state. What they don’t recognize is that requiring teachers to lead students in prayer in public schools as state policy is simply one end of a spectrum and sentencing someone to death for blasphemy is the other end. They may be very apart on the spectrum, but when you allow the power and resources of the state to be used in the service of a specific religion, you are just “haggling over the price.” Perhaps the biggest danger to those who consider themselves Christian is the damage that is done to Chrisitianity itself when state employees are the ones administering religious practice.

You may think it is ridiculous to imply that public school prayer will eventually lead to executions for blasphemy. To be honest, I think so too.

The problem is that I also used to think it was ridiculous to believe that the US would pre-emptively attack and occupy a country that was not threatening it, or that we would officially endorse torture as state policy. I remember thinking how ridiculous it was for those backward countries like Saudi Arabia to torture their prisoners. It seemed as ridiculous then as the idea that we would arrest someone for blasphemy does now.

I still can’t see it happening, but I’ve learned something from being wrong about torture. Things change. Attitude changes lead to behavior changes lead to policy changes. If you don’t take the time and energy now to prevent ridiculous things from happening, eventually they will.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Come On, Bill

George Bush has been great for Bill Clinton. Although we were all pretty sick of Bill by the end, each subsequent year of the Bush disaster has taught us that Bill wasn’t so bad after all, in comparison. Such is the state of the world that we now yearn for a time when public lies were told in the service of morally bankrupt personal failings, instead of morally bankrupt public policy. As W continues to sacrifice our blood, treasure, and status on the pyre of conservatism, Bill’s status and judgment keeps looking better and better.

However, Bill just wouldn’t be Bill if he wasn’t willing to throw away goodwill for personal gain. In the last few weeks, he has been painfully reminding us why we were all so ready for him to move on. We had almost forgotten that he is a lying weasel.

In order to ensure Hillary’s nomination, he has been running around the country spreading lies about Barak Obama:

  • Jon Stewart calls him on supposedly overhearing that union workers who planned to vote against Hilary would be reassigned jobs so they couldn’t go to the caucus.
  • Clinton ads in South Carolina lie about Obama supporting Republican policies like tax breaks for the wealthy and not raising the minimum wage.
  • The whopper that Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War is a “fairy-tale.” Bill is taking an Obama quote out of context to claim Obama wasn’t really opposed to the war at the time of the vote. This is hogwash. Obama was one of the few who publicly stated his opposition before it happened, unlike Bill, who was mushy at best, but now claims he was against it from the beginning. Obama can be criticized for continuing to fund a war he is supposedly against, but his record on having good the judgment to oppose it at the beginning (unlike Hillary and Bill), is spotless.
Come on, Bill. We were just starting to warm up to you again. These are the kinds of things we expect from Lee Atwater and Karl Rove-type Republicans. It doesn't even serve Hillary in the long run, because it just reminds us that we’ll get four more years of slime if she is elected.

Why must Democrats make everything so hard?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Junior High Eco-System

It is harsh and ironic justice that many junior high boys grow up to be fathers of junior high girls. What we didn’t notice or understand in our early teens comes back to demand our full and constant attention, without offering any hope that our advice or responses will be useful, or even desired. As men, we are only marginally more equipped to deal with the problems of junior high girls than we were as boys. Nonetheless, my daughter has been able to teach me some very basic concepts about the junior high eco-system, even if she does so indirectly, and without intending to.

Like most junior high boys, I was blessedly oblivious to the complications of social interaction. Dominance for boys is determined by physical prowess, or sometimes by the willingness to do gross things in front of others. If someone offends you, you have a fight, and then afterward you are as likely to be good friends as bitter enemies. There may be a cruel simplicity to it, but if you want to improve your social standing, there is at least a clear, intelligible path for making it happen.

While the boys are hitting each other over the head with blunt objects, junior high girls spend their time sharpening their many daggers. Unlike boys, they don't parade them around to let everyone know how big and powerful they are. They keep them politely hidden, while making sure they are easily accessible, and then lie in wait. They need not use them often, but when they do, they are efficient and merciless. Fear rules all, and there is no such thing as a permanent friend or a temporary enemy.

Fashion, rumors and music-icon tastes are the methods of domination. Girls seem more committed to pack-like behavior at this age, with the alpha-girl’s social importance much more pronounced than in boy-packs. Occasionally, a stray is caught, bound, and gagged, to increase the size of the pack and offer more protection to its members. Moving from one pack to another is dangerous, as one must gain the protection of another pack before the original pack’s protection is withdrawn. Another danger is that changing packs creates a radioactive decay of undesirability, and each subsequent move decreases the likelihood that any other pack will accept you.

Shunning also seems to be a key part of the eco-system. Each pack seems to require at least one member be shunned on any given day. I don’t understand why this is necessary, but packs seem unable to survive without it.

The method of shunning appears to be logic problems. An example is below:

  • A and B are very good friends.
  • A tells B that C is not a very good friend.
  • B decides not to talk to C in class one day.
  • C asks B why she is not talking to her.
  • B tells her that people told her she is not a good friend.
  • C asks who told her that.
  • B doesn’t want to say.
  • C insists it is only fair that she has a right to know.
  • So, B tells C it was A.
  • C confronts A and says that B said that A was spreading rumors about her.
  • Now C is mad at A for “spreading rumors” and mad at B for believing them.
  • A is also mad at B for telling C that A told B that C was not a good friend.

Question: Who is wrong and should be shunned by A and B’s pack, and how many phone calls and hours of discussion will it take before the shunned person is allowed full-member privileges again?

Bonus Moral: Being suspicious that someone is not a good friend is all it takes for everyone to be a bad friend with everyone else.

This sample logic problem is one week’s worth of drama, and is pretty straightforward. The answer is that it takes hundreds of phones calls and 14 hours per day to sort out who should still be mad at whom. In the end, it is the person with the lower current status who is wrong and should be shunned. She will remain shunned until someone else messes up in a subsequent week’s logic problem, and then her status will move up one hard-earned notch.

Beyond all the physical body changes that happen to everyone at this age, I am convinced there is also some kind of virus that attacks only the higher-functioning members of the species, which is why girls have an especially hard time with it. I plan to learn more about this Junior High Girl Syndrome in the coming years, but I suspect its subtleties might continue to elude me. Nonetheless, I am trying to accept my penance for being a junior high boy without too much complaint, and hope to finish my sentence in 5 or 6 years, when my youngest daughter reaches the middle of high school (JHG syndrome is not actually limited to Junior High – it can stretch well into high school for the persistent cases).

Luckily, JHG Syndrome has not totally corrupted my daughter yet. She’s more volatile than ever before and prone to a lot of yelling and crying (much of it understandable and necessary). But underneath it, she still shows signs of being the sweet and giving person she has always been. I hope her recovery is swift, painless, and non-lethal.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

MLK Passage

The kids are home again today, so my blogging opportunities will be limited. In honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, here's a quote from his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. The headlight/tail-light metaphor was used in two different sermons I heard on Sunday, so I'll just pile on:

"In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause, and with deep moral concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances would get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed. I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, "follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, "those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern.", and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

My New Office

I am happy to report that after many years of construction, and several million dollars in funding, my new office space is finally finished. It is centrally located to downtown, close enough to walk to, and quite nice:

Here is the entry way:
The stairs leading up to my work area:

There are lots of places to just sit and relax:

Also, I have quite a few books, since you never know when you'll want to pick something up to read:

And of course my computer area:

I even thoughtfully included a space where kids can come in and play Wii:

You may be wondering what all those people are doing wandering around in my office. At 122,000 sq. feet, my office is actually much bigger than I need. Since I’m embarrassed to have so much, I allow people to wander in and out. They can even borrow the books and movies for a few weeks to take home and enjoy. They all insist on calling my office a public library, whatever that is, but I don’t mind. I’m a very generous person.

Here's the spot I usually pick to work:

Above is a nice view from my work area of the old Solon house in Champaign. I always pictured the Solon house as the kind of place where if you threw rocks at it, an old lady would come out and yell at you, and then you would laugh at her for being so feeble and ineffective, and then that night, in your dark bedroom, ghouls would appear to feed on your soul.

Anyway, I am a little annoyed that they haven't finished my parking lot yet. I am told the problem is the presence of an old building next to my new office, and they have to knock it down before the parking lot can be paved. The old building was apparently a nesting place for a radical group of subversives, who called themselves Librarians. Good riddance, I say.

It may seem like a waste of resources to create a parking lot for hundreds of cars, when I have only one car, and even then I have to share it with my wife when she complains. But, I figured it would be good to have more parking close to downtown, and, as I've already said, I'm a very generous person.

I plan to be at the office a lot in the coming months. Stop by and say hello. I’ll suggest some books or movies you can borrow from my enormous collection. But please be quiet. I don’t want you to disturb my other guests. Many of them don’t realize it is my office, and my humility requires that I not trouble them about it.

It's a beautiful place to be.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Just Asking

I was leafing through a copy of The Atlantic from a few months ago, and enjoyed this little piece:

Just Asking
by David Foster Wallace

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?*

In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln’s, more or less)


Note that this mirrors the case for pacifism as well. Pacifism isn’t about being safe all the time, but about adhering to the ideal that violence is wrong.

Of course, there’s a practical side to it as well. The methods that try to get us to 100% safety also create more enemies, and is thus impossible to reach. For pacifism, the belief is that violence begets more violence, and in rejecting violence as a response, the circle is broken, and at least allows space for peace.

It doesn't always work in the short term, but that's not always the point either. The point is that ideals are sometimes more important than safety.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

NIN Syndrome

The Not Invented Here Syndrome describes a project team or company that ignores products, technology or knowledge because they didn’t invent or discover it. They then must re-invent or recreate what already exists, at great cost and time to themselves. It is usually the byproduct of the need for control, the impulse to not trust someone else’s work, or simple arrogance.

This happens all the time on software teams. Using an off-the-shelf product is suspicious because it might not have the features you want, and is probably buggy. A piece of software from another team is suspicious because people who are not on your team are usually a bunch of bozos. Even a subroutine on your own project is suspicious because many of the people on your project are also bozos.

In software, there is an energetic laziness about NIH. Programmers usually lack the patience to figure out someone else's code, but have plenty of energy to recreate things that already exist. Usually this is justified by claiming that if something goes wrong, it will be easier to fix their own code. This might be true, but the math is usually something like this: it takes 4 hours to integrate someone else's work and 40 hours to create something new. If there are bugs, it might take 2 hours to figure it out in your own code, and 4 hours in someone else's. This is time well spent from a programmer's point of view, because 44 hours spent doing their own thing is obviously superior to 6 hours spent on someone else's work. Multiply this by a hundred for each programmer and each piece of software they could have used from elsewhere during the life of a project, and you'll understand why software is so often late.

In writing, of course, NIH is a good thing. We even have a word for ignoring it. It is called plagiarism. So, I'm not concerned about ignoring NIH in my writing, but I think my software background has tainted me, because I've discovered an even worse problem. I call it the Not Invented Now Syndrome. It is the idea that anything I am writing right now (this very second in time) is pretty good, and anything that I have written previous to this very second, is a bunch of crap.

If I’ve been away from a piece of writing for any length of time, I’ll re-read part of it, decide it is crap, and then start rewriting it. I’ll be mostly happy with the result at the end of the day, then come back in a few days, decide it is crap again, and repeat the cycle. My attention span is apparently so short that if something was Not Invented Now, it becomes suspicious. Only new stuff is worthy of my time. And I wonder why I can’t finish anything of substance.

There are some alternate explanations, of course, but they are less appealing than having NIN. The most obvious is that what I write really is crap most of the time, so it would make sense that I would feel the need to re-write it every time I see it.

Another is that my writing expresses exactly what I want to say in a completely authentic voice, but that I don’t like myself very much, and keep trying to change my writing to be more like someone I would want to be.

In any case, I've decided to ignore those more likely explanations, be brave, and publicly admit that I suffer from NIN Syndrome. Hopefully, I can serve as an example to others who suffer, so they will know they are not alone. Also, my other potential blog entries for today were total crap, and I didn’t have the patience to re-write them.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Punctuation is Meaning

My wife is reading an interesting punctuation book (which up till now I would have considered an oxymoron): Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss.

The title comes from the following joke: A panda walks into a cafĂ©. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons. “Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “Well, I’m a panda,” he says at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

A most interesting tidbit from the book is that ancient Hebrew (as well as all ancient languages) did not have punctuation. This is yet another reason why “following the Bible literally” doesn’t save you from interpretation. Language is a tricky thing.

Luke 23:43

Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
(Salvation is immediate, Protestant)
Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
(Allows room for purgatory, Catholic)

Isiah 40:3
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the
.” (The person in the wilderness points to the Lord)
The voice of him that crieth: In the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the
.” (The Lord comes from the wilderness)

Comfort ye my people” (go out and comfort my people)

Comfort ye, my people” (just cheer up, people)

Less controversial are these simple jokes:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have not feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours?

Dear Jack,
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn! For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?


I am always under the false impression that writing is the best way to communicate, because you can take the time to think through what you want to say, and say it exactly how you meant to. And yet, it is so easy to get it wrong when translating thought to paper, and misrepresent what you are trying to say. So much of communication is not actually the words, but the inflection and the expressions. Writing allows for more precision, but it takes a lot of extra work to get the tone just right. Often, a raised eyebrow or a soft murmur would have communicated the same thing with much less effort.

It will all be better once we learn to read minds, and can do away with this primitive language business. After all, people's thoughts are much less incendiary than their words.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Democrats Are Complicated

Whew. New Hampshire was certainly a close call for the Democrats. They were in danger of creating an easy nomination path for their most likable and electable candidate (Obama), and also very close to rejecting the one candidate who can unite Republicans (Hillary). It was all very unsettling to watch Democrats almost not shoot themselves in the foot.

Luckily, they pulled it out, and proved that no victory is safe from self-inflicted complication. The odds are now on a long, protracted, money-sucking nomination process. The world is at it should be.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


PG has summed up in 3 words what I will attempt in 343: “Overrated, I’m afraid

Yes, I enjoyed Ratatouille. Yes, the animation is wonderful. Yes, the messages are strong and relevant, and the characters interesting and compelling. But it suffers from a suspension of disbelief problem that I was not quite able to overcome.

The problem isn’t the gourmet-cooking rat. That’s what animation is all about, after all. If woodland creatures can’t help dress a would-be princess or dancing monkeys can’t demand the secret of fire from a boy, we may as well stop going to the movies and spend our free time doing trigonometry.

I especially enjoyed Remy using Linguini’s hair to control him, and the woman who thinks the best way to kill rats is by shotgun, and the use of a last will and testament as wings. I think I laughed the hardest when the rats tied up the health inspector and dumped him in the refrigerator. I say all this merely to provide evidence that suspension of disbelief is not normally a problem for me.

But the movie lost me when Linguini outs Remy. It spends too much time making Remy a real rat for me to believe that he can be outed without crossing some invisible human-cartoon animal barrier. Until then I was willing to believe a rat can cook. Afterward, it made me stop and think: Gee, if there was a real rat in my kitchen, I would try to kill it. Granted, I’ve never seen a rat as cute as Remy. But once that one link snaps, the plot comes tumbling down and the magic is over.

Nonetheless, the plot delivers themes that almost make it worthwhile. Combining “Anyone Can Do Stuff” with “Do What You Are Meant To Do” along with a dash of “Critics Should Advocate For What Is New and Interesting And Good” makes for a nice and tasty sauce. It’s just that the sauce is put on what I thought was going to be turkey, and turns out to be tofu.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Meat Mystery

Picture of MeatSome friends of mine traveled to San Diego over the holidays, and a most mysterious thing happened on the flight back. When they got home, they found that two of their suitcases had been tampered with. While the fact of tampering isn’t too surprising (especially for anyone who has flown through Atlanta via AirTran), the method of tampering was baffling. Instead of things being taken out of their suitcases, they opened them to discover: big slabs of once-frozen meat, now oozing blood all over their socks.

Nothing else seemed to be taken, and other than having to wash socks again very carefully, no harm seems to have been done. It is as if Johnny Apple-Meat-Slab has taken a job as a baggage handler, so he can share his love of meat with the world.

My friends wondered whether it was some kind of drug-smuggling tactic, perhaps to confuse drug-sniffing dogs. However, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, since dogs finding meat would likely just make authorities suspicious, and presumably more searching would ensue.

So, I’m hoping someone out there has enough diverse knowledge of airport baggage handling, security, drug smuggling tactics, and methods for random acts of meat-kindness to shed some light on this mystery.

Also, I now have a little more sympathy for people using strange search terms. Someone will soon be posting that I found their blog based on the string “found meat in luggage.”